Cosmetology teacher’s speech claims don’t wash with 7th Circuit

Saturday, September 30, 2006

A federal appeals court, ruling in the case of a proselytizing cosmetology instructor, has found that colleges can limit teachers' in-class comments if they are unrelated to course material.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Sept. 19 in Piggee v. Carl Sandburg College, upholding a district court decision in favor of the public community college and school officials.

Martha Louise Piggee, a part-time instructor in the cosmetology department at Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Ill., sued the college, its board of trustees, and several administrators after she was not rehired in spring 2003.

In fall 2002, Piggee found out that one of her students, Jason Ruel, was homosexual. Piggee, a Christian, gave him two religious tracts that called homosexuality a sin and offered to discuss the issue with him after he had read them. Ruel filed a formal complaint with the college administration, alleging sexual harassment.

After investigating the matter, two college officials wrote a memo saying: “It has been found that because of Mr. Ruel’s sexual orientation, Mrs. Louise Piggee has been proselytizing in the hopes of changing Mr. Ruel’s sexual orientation and religious beliefs.”

Ruel’s was not the first complaint about Piggee’s religious convictions in the classroom. In 2001, five out of eight student evaluations of Piggee complained about her “emphasis on religion.”

Piggee was warned repeatedly by the administration through a series of letters. Nine months after she was not rehired, she filed a lawsuit claiming that the college’s actions violated her rights to due process, free exercise, equal protection and free speech and that the sexual-harassment policy at Carl Sandburg was “constitutionally infirm.”

According to the 7th Circuit opinion, written by Judge Diane Black, the court had to evaluate four arguments: whether Piggee’s speech was a matter of public concern, whether the college’s interest in upholding sexual-harassment policy or controlling the cosmetology program outweighed free speech, whether the college placed prior restraint on speech, and whether the prior restraint was overbroad or vague.

Black emphasized that the decision in Piggee was not about religion or homosexuality, but that the appeals court had to determine “whether the college had the right to insist that Piggee refrain from engaging in that particular speech while serving as an instructor of cosmetology.”

First, the unanimous three-judge panel determined that Piggee and Ruel were in an academic setting when the incident occurred. There had been debate as to the issue because the incident took place in a clinical salon, not in an actual classroom. The court said that the salon was an instructional environment and therefore Piggee was speaking as a public employee.

Black cited the 2006 Supreme Court decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos, which said that “when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.”

The 7th Circuit panel also determined that there was no prior restraint on the part of the college and that Piggee’s claims about vagueness and overbreadth did not apply because no criminal charges were filed.

Because her speech was not related to her job — teaching students about cosmetology — the court said it ruled in favor of the defendants. “We see no reason why a college or university cannot direct its instructors to keep personal discussions about sexual orientation or religion out of a cosmetology class or clinic,” the opinion said.

Had Piggee been expressing her opinion about cosmetology, the 7th Circuit said, her speech would have been protected. “Classroom or instructional speech, in short, is inevitably speech that is part of the instructor’s official duties, even though at the same time the instructor’s freedom to express her views on the assigned course is protected,” the court wrote.

Melanie Bengtson is an intern at the First Amendment Center and a sophomore studying developmental politics at Belmont University.

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